ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Air Force hockey is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years after a heart-pounding 2-1 win over Robert Morris on Saturday night.
Sophomore goalie Shane Starrett made 24 saves as the Falcons staved off a furious effort by the Colonials, including a full 2 minutes, 30 seconds at the end of the third period with RMU playing with the extra attacker.
"I didn't realize the time was running out until they announced a minute was left, I was so dialed in," said Starrett, who was named MVP of the Atlantic Hockey Conference tournament in Rochester, N.Y.
Air Force nearly scored an empty-netter three times during that span, but could not put the game away until Erik Baskin collected a loose puck and steered it into the neutral zone with six seconds left in the game.
"I didn't look up at the clock until Bask got the puck out and then I just waited and watched," Starrett said. "After that, it's all a blur."
The Air Force coaches and players jumped onto the Blue Cross Arena ice, where the Falcons are now 6-0 in title games and 12-2 overall.
The title comes with an automatic NCAA berth and is the program's sixth in 11 years in Atlantic Hockey and the first since March 2012.
The NCAA selection show is at 10 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU. Air Force is likely to be a third seed at one of the four regionals (Fargo, N.D., Cincinnati, Providence, R.I., Manchester, N.H.) next weekend.
"Those last two minutes felt like two hours," AFA coach Frank Serratore said.
The final four minutes of the second were also an emotional roller coaster for the Falcons faithful.
Air Force leading scorer Jordan Himley scored with 31.1 seconds left in the second to give the Falcons a 2-1 lead after Robert Morris dominated the middle frame.
Himley scored the eventual game-winner after Robert Morris (22-12-4) tied the game with 3:58 left and seized momentum on a goal by Ben Robillard. Himley forced an RMU turnover to start the sequence that led to his team-high 20th goal this season.
"We had them on their heels," Colonials coach Derek Schooley said. "We gave a championship performance tonight, as did Air Force. We just couldn't get the equalizer. We are heartbroken and devastated."
Air Force grabbed the early lead when Baskin banged in a pass from Tyler Ledford (two assists) only 75 seconds into the game. Ledford, Himley, and defenseman Johnny Hrabovsky all made the all-tournament team.
With Starrett in net, it seemed one goal could be enough. The Falcons have won three straight while scoring only five even-strength goals. The lack of power-play tallies (0 for 14) have been offset by not allowing any on eight penalty kills.
"We're doing it with defense and the penalty kill," Serratore said during the media conference. "What are we, 26-9(-5)? We don't have that many wins without this guy (Starrett) to my right or 20 goals by this guy to my right (Himley)."